The Texas Inkling


Morality:  an Aide to Freedom by JC Sanders

Last Monday, during the intermission at our monthly Dominican Laity meeting, the small group with which I was talking was approached by another member of our chapter. She had a question, which was originally intended for Fr Ralph, our groups senior priest. He being absent, she addressed the question to our group: what is the relationship between morality and freedom? A more specific phrasing of the question is: if God is the source of all freedom, how can He also be the source of all morality, which seems like a set of rules, of do’s and do’s not.

This is a very good question, and one with which many people are struggling today. Although no actually doctrinal changes were made during the second Vatican Council, a number of things were changed in the name of that council’s “spirit,” which would more correctly be “the spirit of our times,” or more accurately our social zeitgeist: postmodernism. Postmodernism is a libertine philosophy (and a lazy one at that), so the first thing which it casts aside is morality, and the second any other “rigid” doctrines (by which is really meant “rigorous” or “precisely and accurately defined” doctrines).

And in what name is morality thrown out? I’ve mentioned “the sprit of Vatican II,” but this is rarely the thing actually named. More often, the claim is that morality must be thrown aside for the sake of freedom, or sometimes for the sake of conscience (which is really “freedom to act according to one’s conscience”). Always let your conscience be your guide—is this what is really meant by “freedom from the law” (Romans 6:14)? Those who have this interpretation would be wise to read the next verse (Romans 6:15): “What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.”

As I mentioned a moment before, postmodernism has become the zeitgeist of ours times. Thus, it is all-too-easy to give a post-modern reading of freedom: liberty is replaced with libertinism. Casting aside the morality, the old rules, the law, I become free to do whatever I want, when I want to do it.

But am I really that free? A long line of thinkers, stretching from Russell Kirk and those whom have benefited from his wisdom back at least to the British statesman Edmund Burke would answer in the negative. In his essay “Ten Conservative Principles,” Kirk notes that

“[T]here exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth….Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted….When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few” (emphasis mine).

Freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. Legitimate restraints can and must exist if a society is to remain truly free. The same is in fact true for the individual. When these restraints (or constraints) are placed on society, they are called “laws.” When observed by a private individual, they are collectively called “morality.” Just as a lawless society will fall first into anarchy and then into some form of tyranny, so will a lawless soul pass from libertinism to slavery.

Our desires, if they are not governed, will become our masters. We become their servants, and then soon the slaves of whoever or whatever controls those desires. Morality can be seen as “just another set of rules,” or it can be seen as the means by which to control ourselves so that we may become truly free. By learning and then practicing self-control, I can enjoy freedom in a way which I would never know otherwise.

How can I be free if I must constantly indulge one or another of my desires? If I crave alcohol every night, then I am not free from the bar, and if I crave sexual intercourse I become a slave to the nightclubs and swinger joints, and to all of the consequences thereof. I lose the ability to enjoy the sober company of friends, or to develop a truly intimate relationship with the person whom I love. If my entire life must revolve around satisfying my thirsts or my lusts, if I must schedule around to the bar or the nightclub or the seedy hotel room, am I really a free man? No.

It is no mere coincidence that the Israelites were given the Law of the Old Testament shortly after being lead out of the bondage of Egypt. They were being given freedom after generations of slavery, and would thus need to establish some order within their society if that freedom was to last. On a first glance, it may appear that the law is a long list of do’s and don’ts, but like many other things, the law is far more than the sum of its parts. Among other things, it contains a reminder that freedom is not merely the ability to say “yes,” but also the ability to say “no.”

Return to the Texas Inklings Home